Time Crunch:
Delays in passing budget
could affect lawsuit settlement

  By Abby Morris-Frye
  star staff
  amorris@starhq.com
  A slight delay from the manufacturer of portable jail housing units which the Carter County Commission agreed to buy as part of a lawsuit settlement is currently keeping the Commission from violating the terms of that settlement agreement, but it will not take the pressure off of the governing body to pass a budget in the near future.
  On July 13, members of the County Commission voted 15-8 to accept the terms of the settlement agreement which would dismiss the class action lawsuit brought against the County last year claiming the existence of "inhumane" conditions at the jail. In the settlement, the County agreed to allow monitoring of the current jail facility until such time that a new facility is built, a set of progress deadlines relating to both the current and new facilities and a total compensation of $37,000.
  The attorneys who represented the former inmates of the jail who brought on the lawsuit will be allowed to monitor the progress made by the County toward fixing problems cited in the lawsuit such as overcrowding, inadequate medical care for inmates, a lack of opportunities for exercise by inmates, inadequate jail supervision and poor jail facilities.
  The Carter County Commission had previously approved the purchase of five portable inmate housing units and the settlement agreement also deals with the portable units. "Carter County has ordered and agrees to have in place all five temporary, portable, modular units by September 15, pursuant to the County's contract with Eagle Manufacturing," states the settlement. "Within 10 days of delivery onsite by the manufacturer, the county will have the units operational, with 16 additional correctional officers and support staff added to the sheriff's department's budget, so as to provide approximately 96 new beds."
  Members of the County Commission failed to vote in a budget at its meeting on Aug. 16 and the County has been operating on a continuing budget since July 1. The Commission's Budget Committee has met for an unprecedented 10 times to try to hash out an agreement about how much and where to raise taxes. The Committee has an eleventh meeting scheduled for Tuesday.
  All of these delays in approving a budget for the County -- which is necessary to complete the purchase of the portable housing units for the jail and to hire the 16 additional personnel to operate the units -- could have caused the Commission to be in non-compliance with the terms of the lawsuit settlement if it were not for the delay now expected from the manufacturer of the units.
  "It looks like there is going to be a small delay from the manufacturer," said Carter County Mayor Dale Fair, adding that the company from which the County ordered the units had written them a letter about the delay. "They haven't set a date as to when they will ship them. Jason Cody (County Finance Director) sent a letter asking them to be more specific in how long the delay is going to be. They said in their letter it would be a 'slight delay' so we are not expecting anything major."
  According to Fair, under the terms of the settlement agreement on the jail lawsuit, the County would not be held liable for not meeting deadlines if the circumstances which cause the delay are beyond the County's control. "It does say in the contract that if it's not our fault then we can't be held liable," Fair said. "The agreement also says if we are not in compliance then we have so many days to get into compliance."
  The delay from the manufacturer came as the result of some delays in getting the modular housing units approved by the State Fire Marshal's office, according to Fair, who also stated that at this time, he does not feel that the County is in danger of breaching the lawsuit settlement agreement.
  The County Budget Committee is scheduled to meet again on Tuesday at 7 p.m. in hopes of finding a tax rate which will be agreeable to all 24 members of the County Commission. On Aug. 16, the County Commission votedagainst a property tax rate of $2.57 per $100 of assessed property value.
  If the County Commission does not pass a budget in time to allocate the necessary funds to the Sheriff's Department to hire and train the 16 new employees, then Carter County Sheriff John Henson will have the option to sue the county. "If it comes down to that, then I wouldn't have any other choice but to sue the county commission for money to operate on. But I hope that never comes down to it, because I don't want to sue the county for anything," Henson told The STAR on Aug. 16. "Like I said, most definitely I don't want to cost the taxpayers any more money than what they are having to pay. But I wouldn't have a choice if the federal judge came in and said, 'Hey you are going to do this and you are going to do it in a certain amount of time' and the county commission didn't do it. By law I would have to turn around and sue," Henson said.
  After the Budget Committee meeting on Tuesday, the full Commission will meet during a regularly scheduled meeting on Sept. 13 to consider the tax rate proposed by the Committee unless a special meeting is called prior to that date.